St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Number 21.4-9; Psalm 107.1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2.1-10; John 3.14-21
John 3.16 is certainly one of the most quoted verses of the Bible if not the most quoted. Well-meaning Christians frequently hang a banner with “John 3.16” from the upper decks of football stadiums. Many people can quote John 3.16, but very few can tell you the larger context. Today’s Gospel reading omits most of the story, so even there we are not given the context. From the verses given to us, one has no idea the story consists of a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a Jewish leader, who visited Jesus by night. He was distinguished, a man of high social standing. As a Pharisee he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the governing body responsible for the internal and autonomous affairs of the Jewish people. What would those of his circle think if they knew he had visited this itinerant rabbi that seemed intent on turning things upside down. Jesus, and his activities, were the talk of the town! We see this from Nicodemus’ opening words: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (John 3.2; NRSV). In last Sunday’s sermon, we noted how the Jews sought signs whereas the Greeks sought wisdom and reason.
Nicodemus and many others had been picking up on the signs. What signs? Jesus’ baptism, the water into wine, the cleansing of the temple. Prior to this account, John wrote, “When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone” (John 2.23; NRSV).
In John 1.47-49, we find another reference to Jesus’ foreknowledge: When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said, of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.’ Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” and Jesus replied, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael was shocked – he exclaimed, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (NRSV)
Jesus knew what Nicodemus was searching for – how he yearned for a deeper relationship with God. Thus, he responded to Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3.3; NRSV). An alternative translation, also correct, is “without being born again.” Now Jesus really had Nicodemus’ attention! Nicodemus asked, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” In other words, “What does it mean to be born again, to be born from above?” Jesus replied, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above’” (John 3.5-7; NRSV). Then Jesus added something very interesting, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3.8; NRSV). We do not understand the workings of the wind, nor do we understand the workings of the Spirit, but one who has been born from above knows that she has experienced something powerful.
Nicodemus incredulously, asked, “How can these things be?” Jesus confronts him: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Jesus then pointed out that although they have spoken of what they know and have seen, yet the Pharisees do not receive their testimony. Hence, Jesus asked, “If I have told you (which is plural) about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” Having raised that question, Jesus said, “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3.13-15; NRSV). As a Pharisee, Nicodemus would have known the story of the Israelites and the bronze serpent; he knew the Israelites had been saved from death by looking upon the bronze serpent. Nicodemus may have wondered about Jesus’ reference to the Son of Man being lifted up on the cross—that was yet to come.
Then Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (NRSV). Just as the ancient Israelites believed and looked upon the serpent and were thereby rescued from physical death, those who believe in Jesus shall receive eternal life. This is the context of John 3.16.
In the verses which follow John 3.16, Jesus told Nicodemus, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3.17-18; NRSV). Think of it this way, Jesus differs from the serpents who served to condemn the Israelites; Jesus did not come to condemn anyone but to afford salvation to all who believe. All have sinned; everyone already stands condemned.
Then Jesus closed the conversation as follows: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3.19-21; NRSV). Jesus is the light of the world. Later in the gospel, John writes, “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8.12; NRSV).
One who has eternal life has been born of the Spirit, for one can believe and confess Jesus Christ only if enabled by the Spirit. As St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians, “No one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (12.3; NRSV). Only those who believe can say, “Jesus is Lord.”
The story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus in the night is a wonderful story. It says so much about us. Let’s consider a few insights.
First, Jesus know us—he knows our fears, our anxieties, our animosities, our depravity, our failures and successes, our joys and sorrows, our desire for goodness, our loneliness, our lust, our search for love, and our desire to be made whole. Think about it – nothing we will ever confess will surprise Jesus—he knows us better than we know ourselves. One of the most amazing things about prayer (conversation with Jesus) is that we come to know ourselves through prayer, and as we sense Jesus’ love and acceptance, we come to better love ourselves.
Second, it is generally true that everyone comes to Jesus in the night—figuratively if not literally; sometimes figuratively and literally. When we come to Jesus, we are emerging from our darkness into the Light, the judgment that has come into the world. When we believe and follow Jesus, we have the light of life; we are born of the Spirit and granted eternal life.
Third, let’s look at John 3.16 again: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Is it enough to believe? Our readings from Psalms and Ephesians address this question. The psalmist encourages us to do something more than believe: “Let all those whom the Lord has redeemed proclaim that he redeemed them from the hand of the foe” (Psalm 107.2; BCP). In Ephesians we are reminded that though we were once dead through our trespasses and sins, God, in God’s great mercy and grace, has “made us alive together with Christ.” Having been saved through faith is not our own doing nor is it the result of works; our salvation comes through our belief in the gift of God’s grace in the person of Jesus Christ.
The reading from Ephesians closes with these words: “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (2.10; NRSV). Belief is the beginning! When we truly believe, we no longer come to Jesus by night; we live in truth and “come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that our deeds have been done in God.”
What a wonderful Savior we have and what a life we can live! Amen